are things going to get ugly? a growing fat stigma.

March 31, 2011

in culture

“At a time when global health officials are stepping up efforts to treat obesity as a worrisome public health threat, some researchers are warning of a troubling side effect: growing stigma against fat people.”

a new report finds that fat stigma may be on the rise and going global. the new york times and others are writing about it today. the topic’s so controversial, the site hosting the study crashed earlier.

we’re already seeing more people willing to ding the other guy when he doesn’t make healthy choices. (see towers watson report, page 9.)  now we may see people ready to pounce on others they perceive as too lazy or disinterested in losing weight—especially if they figure these people are affecting their pocketbook. they’ll ignore the social and environmental reasons people become obese and the fact that blaming people doesn’t do squat to change their behavior.

are things going to get ugly?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Roche March 31, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I was in a meeting last year when a very senior Hr person said, “Our campaign should tell them that if they can’t see their toes then mayeb they should get off the couch and stop with the Twinkies.” Um, yeah…you know some people who are just thinner because they are. She’s one of those.

Really good article here…and a really important point — making fat jokes is still tolerated. And people are being prompted to make it more so with the You’re Too Fat campaigns. Nicely done.

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fran April 1, 2011 at 7:48 am

frank, i like the point made in one of the commentaries on the research. the person quoted commented that we should focus on actions and not attributes (my paraphrasing).

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Frank Roche April 1, 2011 at 8:45 am

Fran, that’s a great phrase: Actions, Not Attributes. That’s a lot better than, “You’re fat and your mother wears combat boots.”

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fran April 1, 2011 at 8:47 am

i’d pay money to see my mother in combat boots.

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Bob Merberg March 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm

I’d prefer nobody was stigmatized for any reason — heavy people, smokers, or any other group. But I admit to being surprised to hear that “fat stigma” may be on the rise. I haven’t read the study yet, but it seemed to me that fat stigma was on the decline. A decline would also be consistent with the social networking research of Christakis and Fowler. One of their explanations for why obesity spreads via social networks is because of increasing social acceptance of it. And, overall, as obesity becomes more prevalent, one intuitively would think that the stigma would decrease.
I can imagine different ways of measuring the strength of stigmatization, and how increased stigmatization and greater social acceptance could coincide. It could be fewer people establishing a stronger stigma. It could be a strong stigma based on a higher threshold (e.g., the stigma previously was directed towards moderately heavy people and now it’s directed towards more obese people). It could be a comparable number of people with an “anti-fat” bias, but expressing it more visibly.
I guess I should read the study.

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fran April 1, 2011 at 7:51 am

bob, one reason may be that this study focused on the stigma going global, reaching places where larger bodies typically had a more positive image than they do here.

here, and in reference to christakis and fowler, i’d suggest that there’s a difference between the groups we choose to interact with and those we work with. yesterday on compensation cafe, they wrote about another study finding weight and salary discrimination. we’re obviously not that accepting of obesity. it may be that we’re more accustomed to seeing it, that’s all.

let me know what you think when you read the piece.

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Steve Boese March 31, 2011 at 10:04 pm

It is already tough enough in many workplaces to really get people to effectively team and collaborate. Now if they perceive the guy down the hall that they are supposed to be closely working with and achieving great outcomes might be costing them since he is too fat (or smokes, or has high blood pressure), then I wonder what happens to effective teamwork then?

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fran April 1, 2011 at 7:55 am

steve, i wonder the same thing. i also think that type of thinking and interference is already present. i do wonder if it’ll get worse as we as a country (and as employers) focus even more intently on correcting our major obesity problem.

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Bob Merberg April 1, 2011 at 8:32 am

One quick comment (I’ll have a lot more to say about his in upcoming blogs): At this point, I’m not convinced that employers *are* focused on correcting the obesity problem. Increasingly, they are just focused on making employees pay for obesity.

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Bethany April 4, 2011 at 9:18 am

Bob,

Couldn’t agree more with your take on employers. Bottom line focus trumps “doing the right thing” focus. They’re unable to see that (1) treating their people the right way, because its the right thing to do, and (2) paying attention to the bottom line, don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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Greg Matthews April 1, 2011 at 8:54 am

I learned a huge lesson about social perceptions of obesity 2 years ago. At the time, I was editing the blog for my employer’s web site (the site has unfortunately been subsequently binned). One of my colleagues wrote what turned out to be a very provocative piece about this very subject … the assertion that “fat is the new normal.”
I was blown away by the response to the post – which was overwhelmingly negative. It brought to the surface all kinds of hidden hurts from overweight people who felt that they were members of the “last unprotected class.” The author and I both felt awful about hurting so many people’s feelings, which was certainly never our intention. But it brought about some very important learnings:
1. People’s body image – particularly for overweight people – is a very emotional space. It is nearly impossible to have a rational conversation about it because of this sensitivity.
2. The overweight are more willing than ever to fight against what they perceive as discrimination
3. Obesity is an incredibly complex phenomenon, as you allude to in your post. It’s not nearly as simple as “saying no to that twinkie.” Trying to oversimplify and overgeneralize the problem isn’t helping at all.

To answer your question, I think that things are ALREADY ugly, and they’re going to get worse as the perception that Steve Boese alluded to becomes more prevalent (why should I pay more because of your obesity?).

Like Bob Merberg, I hope that we can find a way to have this kind of dialog without stigmatizing anyone – but it’s going to be an uphill battle.

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fran April 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm

greg, glad you chimed in. body image is huge for most everyone. you never know what’s hidden behind an overweight or “healthy” physique. and the overweight are discriminated against. check the most recent data about salary discrimination based on weight.

i’m not overweight, and i get all kinds of fired up when people attach negative personal labels to those who are overweight. in my humble and outspoken opinion, people can do that once we’ve ensured we’ve leveled the playing field in terms of education, income and all of those other things that stack the deck against some folks from the get-go.

you’re right. it probably is already ugly. how do we influence companies to take on education and tolerance on this issue along with everything else?

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Janet McNichol April 2, 2011 at 7:37 pm

This is one of the reasons I’ve steered clear of premium reductions and other types of financial wellness incentives. I worry that they’ll be perceived as a penalty and start a rift between the fit and unfit members of our staff. If that happens, we could loose all the trust and good will we’ve built up over the years with our wellness program. And, then we’ll have little opportunity to really help people make changes that will improve their health.

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Bob Merberg April 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this topic. I should say that I’m not just considering the workplace context. I’m reflecting on society overall, including schools, etc. So maybe I’m off track?
Also, I hope that I’m clear that my preference is that no one will be stigmatized, but I fear I won’t communicate that skillfully and will be misunderstood.
I’ve been thinking about all the different sub-populations of people that are stigmatized in the workplace and in society. These would include:

Gay people
Shy people
Ethnic minorities
People who aren’t into sports
Bald people
Females
Males
Smokers
Southerners (in northern US)
Less educated people
Adults without kids
Vegetarians

At first, I’m sure this list seems ridiculous. Are shy people and vegetarians stigmatized as much as overweight people? But in my opinion, they are. For example, it’s a documented fact that in western societies, shy people are less likely to advance in their careers and are actually judged harshly by others (it’s not just their perception). Contrast this to Asian cultures, in which gregariousness is more frowned upon. Personally, as a moderate vegetarian, I often feel that I’m pigeon-holed as a health nut or living on the fringe, neither of which are true (of course, this was not true when I worked in Berkeley — but they had their own groups to stigmatize). Males (you may ask)? But I’m consistently amazed at the extent to which male-bashing is 100% acceptable in the workplace.
A difference may be, as Janet points out, that none of these groups are necessarily being penalized in their medical coverage (though many gay dependents would disagree). But, while I adamantly oppose basing medical coverage rates on BMI, I think stigma against obese people goes back *a lot* further than that, and, as Fran points out, is taking place in other parts of the world (where they are not being surcharged). So this can’t all be about insurance rates.
The fact that other groups are stigmatized in no way diminishes the stigmatization of overweight people. But we should at least be mindful of the potential repercussions of singling out overweight people as a victimized class. Maybe I am a health nut on the fringe, but personally I’ll take this opportunity to reflect and try to remediate any tendencies *I* have to stigmatize others, whether they are fat, skinny, or whatever, and try to be the change I wish to see in the world.

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fran April 4, 2011 at 8:18 am

bob, if this post made you step back and examine any subtle prejudices you hold, i feel pretty darn good.

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Janet McNichol April 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm

@Bob, I can’t stop thinking about Fran’s post and one on incentives by Paul Herbert. I tried to summarize my thoughts in this here —

http://www.insideworkplacewellness.com/2011/04/incentives-and-stigmas.html

@Fran, Thanks for making us think.

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fran April 4, 2011 at 8:21 am

janet and bob, in relation to the auto insurance comparison, one which always comes up, the question to ask is whether those higher rates influence behavior. or, is it the environmental and legislative changes (seat belts, car safety standards, better road safety, etc.) that’s brought our traffic deaths to the lowest in 60 years: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/01/us/01driving.html.

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Tyson Tsuboi August 14, 2012 at 11:43 am

First of all thank you for producing this type of clear write-up on this subject matter.

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